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Healthy vs. Unhealthy Conflict

Conflict is a loaded word, and when I ask groups whether they can do design successfully without conflict, they are, well, conflicted. Beyond the mere “lack of alignment and clarity,” conflict also has a negative connotation. It is often associated with violent emotion, drama, and a lack of desire to agree.

In this meaning of conflict, the word embodies an obstacle to overcome, something for our hero (you, of course) to defeat. In this meaning of conflict there are winners and losers. People who see conflict only in this way seek to push their design through and piss off everyone around them.

So, this isn’t the kind of conflict that is the engine of design. It’s the engine of sociopathy.

Unfortunately, these two versions of conflict can look, on the outside, very similar. Arguments and even emotion can play a role in both kinds of conflict. The key difference is their intent. Are the participants trying to further the design? Are they arguing in service of the project? Or are they just trying to win?

I distinguish these two kinds of conflict as healthy and unhealthy. Healthy conflict moves projects forward by building momentum or contributing to quality—or, hopefully, both. Unhealthy conflict yields no progress on the project, no better design solution.

Distinguishing Between Healthy and Unhealthy Conflict

Unhealthy conflict can create an obstacle that prevents teams from talking about disagreements that matter. In other words, one person’s personal or stylistic issues can prevent the team from successfully engaging in meaningful discourse. Therefore, designers must recognize the differences between these things and do what they can to avoid being the source of unhealthy conflict.

Perhaps this is the designer’s greatest challenge: conflict is good for design, but pointless arguing is counterproductive. Arguing wherever and whenever possible, therefore, is not a safe gamble. The occasional productive conversation isn’t worth it if no one wants to work with you.

Unhealthy conflict is easy to recognize because it’s personal. I had a client say to me, “This is all wrong. You got this all wrong.” Throwing failure in someone’s face, deserved or not, is the fastest way to divert a conversation. My immediate reaction was to get defensive. In this case, the defense mechanism manifested itself as redirecting blame: I insisted that she was constantly changing the project objectives. Her only response was to deny that. We got, no surprise, nowhere.

You can recognize unhealthy conflict when people

  • Lash out at designs without a rationale for their critique: “This sucks.”
  • Attempt to undermine a team member’s creative skills without constructive criticism: “This is clearly above you.”
  • Attack other aspects of the designer’s style or approach: “You’re so disorganized.”
  • Defend their own actions: “I told you how to prioritize the requirements.”

These phrases represent real situations, and their messages are important, but the phrasing is purposefully antagonistic. People who have the good of the project in mind (not their own self-interest) will position these messages differently (Table 4.3).

Table 4.3. Recognizing Unhealthy Conflict

The statement...

...tries to...

It could... saying...

“This sucks.”

Undermine the designer’s self-confidence.

Help the team zero in on a design direction.

“Help me understand some of the decisions you made.”

“This is clearly above you.”

Elevate the speaker over other members of the team.

Simplify the scope of the task or assignment.

“Seems like you’re spinning. Which parts can I help with?”

“You’re so disorganized.”

Deflect attention from the design challenge.

Help the team prioritize tasks.

“Are you having trouble prioritizing?”

“I told you how to prioritize the requirements.”

Deflect attention away from the speaker’s shortcomings.

Align the team’s understanding of the design problem.

“How did you interpret the priorities I gave you? Let’s make sure we’re on the same page.”

Unhealthy Conflict as a Mask

If healthy conflict is all about achieving a shared understanding, then surely unhealthy conflict has nothing to do with understanding. Right?

In reality, unhealthy conflict is a smokescreen for potentially healthy conflict. That is, the misalignment and lack of clarity surrounding design decisions that feed healthy conflict are the same as those that feed unhealthy conflict. The difference is how participants choose to react. There are two ways this can happen, but both yield the same result—defensiveness.

  • They have anxiety about not understanding the decision. They realize they do not understand the decision, so they lash out to protect themselves, to prevent others from realizing they do not understand.
  • They have anxiety about the decision itself. For one reason or another, they don’t like the decision made (whether they understand it or not), and they lash out to protect themselves.

Anxiety from Not Understanding

Admitting ignorance is one of the central tenets of resolving conflict. By admitting you don’t know, you create an opportunity for someone else to help you understand. People still struggle with this. People believe themselves to be judged on what they know, and on proving that they know it. Combine this with an “unhealthy” view of conflict—that every conflict has winners and losers—and people are bound to behave counterproductively.

Anxiety from the Decision Itself

Decisions come with implications: tasks to complete, milestones to hit, activities to perform. As people come to understand how a decision impacts their responsibilities or expectations, they may activate defense mechanisms if the implication exposes perceived weakness.

Converting Unhealthy Conflict to Healthy Conflict

Designers may not see it as their responsibility to deal with every jerk that walks into their professional life. Indeed, not everyone can have a “no asshole rule.” Designers, however, are not always at liberty to choose with whom they work.

All the jerks I’ve encountered thrive on reactions. Emotion sets their anxiety at ease. They’ve shifted focus away from their inadequacy or ignorance, setting it squarely on their opponent’s shoulders. By picturing the jerk as someone without the means for expressing himself in a productive way—literally missing that mechanism from his brain—the situation looks different.

Once you’ve depersonalized this person’s attack, it becomes a starting point for a real conversation. To ease the transition to a productive conversation, try redirecting the topic at hand (Table 4.4).

Table 4.4. Snappy Answers to Stupid Statements

Unhealthy Statement

Constructive Response

“This sucks.”

“Let’s start at the top. What isn’t working about the header? Too much information crammed in there?”

“This is clearly above you.”

“Let me walk you through the design to help you understand the decisions I made.”

“You’re so disorganized.”

“Let me walk you through the process, and I can give you some insight into where I’m at and where I’m going.”

“I told you how to prioritize the requirements.”

“My takeaway from that conversation was that requirements 2, 5, and 9 were most important. I used those to drive the design. I’ll explain how. If there are different priorities now, let’s talk about them.”

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